The act of washing out Anna Boghiguian’s wall texts—after the closure of her exhibition Woven Winds (2017), where I served as assistant at Index, Stockholm—is still a vivid memory. The mundane process of whitewashing walls to make them ready for the upcoming shows provoked in me a reflection on vanishing words, memories, and stories; is there a way to retrieve imprinted narratives that are no longer visible? It might be through the structure of a palimpsest (from the ancient Greek πάλιν + ψηστός, which literally means “again scraped”). A palimpsest is a parchment written upon twice, whose peculiarity is the retention of the underlying erased script, resurfacing due to the iron oxidation in the original ink.
Gesturing to this paleographic connotation, the palimpsest can serve as a speculative device to interrogate figurative frontiers and fictional layers, which have often empowered geopolitical hegemonies, particularly in Europe. As Ida Danewid argues, a new humanism flattening into notions of mourning and bodily vulnerability is permeating European politics. Such a political strategy is conniving in covering up Europe’s long history of empire, slavery, and racial violence, with consequences seen in the current Mediterranean crisis.
As agents in the art world, what kind of criticality can we set forth to resurface eradicated marks and to avoid reproducing mechanisms of cultural domination within curated biennials and large-scale international exhibitions? The logic of the palimpsest might provide a set of principles for reconsidering our ethical position when approaching diasporic narratives, inherited trauma, and radical care. When we turn to recent occurrences in the contemporary art practice, the case study of the Mediterranea19 – School of Waters seems to overlap a few fundamentals of a palimpsestuous vision in its aim of fostering perpetual openness to relational readings, while attempting to wash off stereotypes still permeating our Eurocentric geographical imaginaries. Its palimpsestuous approach centers on how discarded and erased groups can become major players in reconfiguring forms of proximity among distant narratives, in reshaping the complexity of the present through the past and in releasing imbricated stories.
Far from providing a linear historical evolution of the palimpsest and/or expecting to establish any alternative curatorial vectors, this article is an eulogy to the fragile, aggregative, and ungovernable potentials of interrupted narratives and a deliberately heuristic attempt to exercise patterns of proximity between discarded singularities.
Tracing back to Thomas De Quincey the substantivization of the palimpsest—since then merely referred to a paleographic manuscript—scholar Sarah Dillon endorses it as a device to introduce her notion of “theoretical criticism,” a type of writing where the purity of frontiers is contaminated. In The Palimpsest: Literature, Criticism, Theory (2007), she conceives the palimpsest as an active agent with a generative power. Dillon refers to it as “an involuted phenomenon where otherwise unrelated texts are involved and entangled, intricately interwoven, interrupting and inhabiting each other.” Thus, “palimpsestuous” stands for a reading of the world made of intimacy yet separation: “an inventive process of creating relations where there may, or should, be none.” The palimpsest speaks to a cohabitation of seemingly alien narratives folding and unfolding in dialogue. It is an interpretative tool that produces meaning through intricate webs of connectedness rather through isolating processes. This criticality discloses a state of duality, where we feel both aware and unaware, empowered and disempowered. As a critical tool, the palimpsest does not merely present an attitude of embodiment; it also conveys the production of new subjects. Here stands its poietic function that leads us to question inherited master narratives, as they cannot longer accommodate the complexity of reality. One can refer to the palimpsest as an “active othering,” as proximity experienced through distance. To a certain extent, the palimpsest might be assimilated to what philosopher Armen Avanessian refers to as metanoia. Moving from the portrayal of the term as repentance, metanoia—as much as the palimpsest—stands for a new understanding coming from overwriting the old one. Due to this overwriting, “We no longer perform our earlier ‘readings’ of the world.” We trace a state of instability, an inconclusive tension from within, which produces a new singularity. The palimpsest is then not a collection of archival shreds, but rather a process of composing a new layer of individuation. According to this theorization, the palimpsest produces an active nihilism, where underlying erased script ushers in something different from before. It is suggested the palimpsest is the locus of a complex set of transformational relations, a shift of existing relations of thinking about the world.
The palimpsest operates as a principle of movement, of fluidity that disregards boundaries. Within this movement, the identity of the narratives themselves is visible and invisible at once. Ideas that are not really comfortable within a given structure of knowledge thrive in such a movement, as they cannot settle into a legitimating frame or environment. The line of the palimpsest is porous to the extent we do not work to retrace the former imprints of the existing separation—rather navigating them. In fact, the porosity of the palimpsest is an elusive disruption, as it does not produce itself as conflict, but as proximity. It is a movement of vicinity in remoteness, where the singularity of the narratives is maintained over the whole. This attitude implies that through the palimpsest we inhabit the space asynchronically.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the palimpsest in this theorization is that such model makes it possible to reshape the relations between our present and discarded past. As Akiko Busch puts it, “The physical presence of unspoken things is enough sometimes to fill a page.” The main paleographic attribute of the palimpsest is to preserve in its fibers the effaced writing which was thought to have been scraped off. The erasure becomes an ephemeral process, which cannot prevent the words from their reappearance. Words, sentences, and entire paragraphs acquire a physical presence through their absence, upholding how a subject can heal from traumatic expunctions. La Disparition (1969) by Georges Perec is a literary instance bringing to bear these considerations. Perec composes a 300-page French lipogrammatic novel, erasing the letter ‘e’ according to Oulipo constraints. As both of Perec's parents perished in World War II, scholar Warren Motte reads the absence of the letter ‘e’ as a reference to Perec's own sense of absence. His void does not stand as a static act of mourning, rather it takes the shape of a coded discourse on loss and recovery. Perec is not able to pronounce the words père, mère, and famille in his novel, nor can he write his own name. The absence the reader perceives in La Disparition speaks with an urgent voice about the existential struggles of an orphan attempting to deal with his parents’ absence. In French, sans e (without ‘e’) sounds interestingly like sans eux ("without them"), which adds another layer of complexity to the reference to loss.
To open up the speculative exercise initiated, it could be useful coming back around to our initial questions: Is there a way to retrieve imprinted narratives that are no longer visible? A later writing tool somehow discloses the process of erasure and overwriting already explored with a palimpsest, while constituting its metaphorical further step. A Wunderblock is a writing pad made of a wax board and a sheet of cellophane. Once the cellophane—where the text is written over—is pulled away, the text on the tablet disappears. However, the text is never fully erased, as a faded trace from each word is retained upon the wax slab itself and is still detectable. Thus, the Wunderblock is an expression of an unlimited narration yet with a permanent word retention. In his Notiz Über den “Wunderblock” (1925), Sigmund Freud expands on this devise as a metaphor to illustrate functionalities of our unconscious, where memories are stored and from where they may resurface. Human memory expresses a similar dual capacity for unlimited receptivity and the preservation of durable traces, though deformed or altered. It implies traumas and individual memories are engraved within the waxy surface of our unconscious. Bites of erased narratives relentlessly emerge in a different shape from within their own carvings.
The taking on of the role of curator implies a dedication to both practical and theoretical resources to challenge our agency and face fallacious critical assets that might feed our imaginaries. Appreciating Adorno’s negative dialectics remark, according to which art must recognize the uncertainty of any form of constituted knowledge, we should tend to adopt a dissenting-within research method. When we turn to the situated Mediterranean crisis, the palimpsestuous approach spurs us to brings to the fore the layered subjectivities of European history, scraping off mainstream narratives to trace back the interconnection of apparently disconnected memories. As philologists, we should learn to decodify the earlier erased script of that manuscript called Europe, to realise that the “Mediterranean crisis [is revealed] not as a moment of exception or as a discrete event in time but, rather, as a late consequence of Europe’s violent encounter with the Global South.” There are invisible premises to visible occurrences. The Mediterranean is the page where unrepresented bodies and distant singularities are intertwined in a complex narrative of power, equality struggles, and migration.
Can we hazard the contamination of such a palimpsestuous attitude by art production? How do we position our voices in the contingency of the making of biennials and large-scale exhibitions? An international art biennial nurtures encounters between local and global entities, yet the terms of these encounters can be heavily compromised by certain dynamics of power. As curators, we might likely find ourselves in the crossfire of several ethical, cultural, and political conundrums. It is due to the fact that, “The frame around the artwork— geopolitical, institutional, discursive, and spatial—is never neutral […]. The container, too, should not be assumed to be negligible, innocent, or disinterested.”
Mediterranea19 – School of Waters might constitute a relevant case when coming to navigate such concerns. This transnational biennial is promoted by BJCEM Foundation (Biennale des jeunes créateurs de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée), a network of fifty-two members— cultural institutions as well as independent organizations—from eighteen countries of Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Such a structure presents heterogenous layers of interests, in need of being mediated and from time to time re-negotiated. With this in mind, the adoption of the palimpsestuous vision implies that as curators we prevent imagined conflicts by adopting the principle of proximity and distance, namely exercising a profound understanding of our each one’s intentions while negotiating the best conditions of support to the artists.
The biennial is a hodgepodge of diverse subjective productions to be navigated. This mission has intensified with the 19th edition, which pivots on an imaginative reshaping of the factual and symbolic agency of waters. Mediterranea 19 – School of Waters envisages a biennial as a temporary school, inspired by radical and experimental pedagogies. From this perspective, School of Waters acts as a collective exercise to defamiliarise stereotypes manipulating our geographical imaginaries, pulling together artistic practices that retrace memory, diasporic trauma, and liminal existences. These practices combine the making and re-making of the past and the present, triggering a shift from chronological and geographical cartographies to scattered knowledge, incorporating into fluid textualities. The desire to rely on waters discloses the intention of practicing a liquid syncretism, which makes of the Mediterranean a complex realm of singularities in coexistence while challenging notions of static identities and our sense of belonging within the lands. The programmatic and centuries- old erasure of the European history of subjugation, transatlantic slavery, and colonial conquest corroborates the misleading “belief that the Mediterranean crisis originates outside of Europe—and that Europe, as a result, is an innocent bystander.” Acting from a watery perspective implies a deeper understanding of the contemporary crisis as part of Europe’s ongoing relationship with the world, experienced through years of obscuration of the singular actors.
The latest edition of the Biennale is to take place in San Marino, a microstate enclave surrounded by Europe. Albeit not part of the EU, with respect to other European microstates the Republic of San Marino seemingly experienced a remarkable growth in economy commensurate to the development of an extensive banking system. However, after the early 2000s, the international fight against tax evasion and money laundering practices, as well as the financial and economic crisis of 2008, “San Marino’s banking system has come under severe criticism, and its economy now has to be entirely restructured.” Operating in a similar stratified system also means to us defamiliarizing stereotypes that manipulate geographical imaginaries, such as San Marino being one of the richest countries of the world—yet with no apologetic attitude, as much as to scratch the surface of its self- promotional narratives, which might undercover compelling stories to be told. The aim is to question inherited and conventional visions in favor of marginal grammars, whenever we are asked to handle complex cartographies.
Taking on a palimpsestuous criticality must make us aware of the uncertainty of any form of constituted knowledge, especially those linked to a Eurocentric interpretation of the Mediterranean area. The palimpsest is oriented toward the future as much as toward the past; it is part of a dynamic discourse that must generate imaginary matrices to avoid recognising the spatial uniformity, which is a side effect of globalisation. The idea of the variable form— porous, prone to infinite transformation and open to otherness is what we pursue as so-called zimmendari, namely as guarantors taking the risk of suggesting a different perspective of things. Fostering the substantive attributes of the palimpsest might challenge the way we look at our agency as a European cultural producer. The palimpsestuous epistemology moves from a desire to form a question and not be satisfied with the received answer. It implies a skepticism concerning narratives layered on unquestioned platitudes about identity, memory, and nation. It produces an asynchronous criticism: disregarding factual and figurative frontiers and questioning procedures of fictional layering that have empowered Europe in particular in its geopolitical dominance. Traversing the archetype of the palimpsest stimulates a transformative repair in critical thinking. Transformation emerges as inseparable from maintenance, which is produced when we take responsibility for our controversial heritage. Inhabiting the present does not mean imposing a form, but rather re-establishing a relationship with the past, which can never be evenly whitewashed.
Giulia Colletti is an art historian and curator. She is Curator of the Public Programs and Digital Sphere at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, where she is currently drafting, with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the Museum’s new venue Digital Cosmos, collecting artworks by Francis Alÿs; Ed Atkins; Michael Rakowitz; Anri Sala; Marianna Simnett; and William Kentridge, amongst others. She is part of the curatorial board of 19th Biennial of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean. Colletti holds an MLitt in Curatorial Practice (Contemporary Art) at The Glasgow School of Art. She was a Lecturer of The Glasgow School of Art and the recipient of the UK Young Artist Research Fellowship 2019. She is an iCI (Cape Town) and Curators Lab (12th Shanghai Biennale) alumna. Her professional experience includes curatorial and editorial training positions at CCA: Centre for Contemporary Arts Glasgow; OFF Biennale Budapest (2015) and at the 56. Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte La Biennale di Venezia, respectively. She has curated an array of exhibitions with artists including Elisabetta Benassi; Sarah Browne; Marcel Broodthaers; Núria Güell; Adelita Husni-Bey; Hanne Lippard; Wolfgang Tillmans; and Sue Tompkins, amongst others.
1 “Anna Boghiguian: Woven Winds,” accessed May 3, 2020, http://indexfoundation.se/exhibitions/anna-boghiguian-woven-winds.
14 The Economic Crisis and the Politics of the Republic of San Marino A Comparative Case Study, Conference Paper for the 6th ECPR General Conference August 25 - 27, 2011, Reykjavik Iceland Section 28 (Small States and the Global Economy), Panel 204 (The Politics and Political Economy of Tiny European States):